To persons of a certain age, Abdul Rehman Antulay and Arun Shourie are names that are inseparable. Chief minister of Maharashtra from 1980 to 1982, Antulay was Indira Gandhi’s right hand man who became chief minister after Maharashtra’s youngest leader, a lad called Sharad Pawar, was dethroned. Pawar’s Progressive Democratic Front toppled the Congress government led by Vasantdada Patil in July 1978. The Congress paid Pawar back in the same coin in 1980.
Antulay was made chief minister for two reasons: one, he was totally, utterly loyal to Indira Gandhi — he was by her side through the emergency and when the Congress split in 1978 with
K Brahmananda Reddy announcing Indira Gandhi had been expelled from the party (the so-called Congress Indira was born at Antulay’s residence, incidentally); two, after Pawar’s betrayal, Indira Gandhi recognised that the back of the Marathas in Maharashtra had to be broken. In 1980, Indira Gandhi rode back to power with historic victories in the Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh Assemblies and secured 300 seats in the general election. The priority was to reward loyalists. Maharashtra got its first Muslim chief minister.
Many were uncomfortable with that, including Shalinitai Chavan, who was revenue minister in his government but testified against his party colleague in the trial that was to follow.
Antulay was considered a liberal Muslim who promised to bring Shivaji’s sword back to India. But he also needed to contribute to the party coffers — a party which had been born only lately.
Arun Shourie was editor of The Indian Express, and someone came to meet him about a story. They wanted to open a hospital in Maharashtra, they said, but the chief minister wanted a “contribution” of Rs 5 crore. That was the first time he heard of the Indira Gandhi Pratibha Pratishthan, a trust.
Trying to trace the origins, history and signatories of the trust, Shourie sought the help of fellow journalist Govind Talwalkar, who offered to put him in touch with two people who knew all about it. They were junior civil servants with the Koyana Dam Rehabilitation Project who had their own beef with Antulay. The office of the Indira Gandhi Pratibha Pratishthan was adjacent to the project office, but the man there, a typist, had gone to lunch. They offered to help Shourie obtain all the details and keep them ready for him: Cheque numbers, contributions to the trust, the amount paid and most important, a photocopy of the ledger page.
This was the basic information. There were more than 100 cheques from all possible industries: Construction companies, cement factories, sugar mills.
But the cheques by themselves were inadequate evidence. To prove that they were payments for services rendered, they had to be matched with decisions the government had taken to give breaks to these industries. Shourie then began the backbreaking task of verifying dates, decisions taken by the Maharashtra Cabinet and the “costs” that were paid to a trust that bore Indira Gandhi’s name.
The last bit of crucial and damning evidence was a circular issued by the Maharashtra government instructing that payments were to be made “per bag” of cement and sugar. The order was issued in the context and in an era when the government exercised controls over both the production and supply of sugar and cement. Hence, the payment could be linked to the permits issued by government agencies for both the commodities.
Industry leaders had the circular but were too afraid to share it. It was then that Shourie was asked to contact an Opposition leader, Pawar.
Pawar told him two people would come to meet him late at night. They are industry icons today. They brought the circulars: one for the sugar industry and one for cement.
With the last detail in place, Shourie then got down to making the page. In those days, details had to be fed through the teleprinter and one wrong keystroke could introduce a major error. There were 102 cheques classified by the industry. It took a long time. To prevent the news from leaking, he started work only after 11 pm. Even so, it leaked.
The doughty proprietor of The Indian Express, Ramnath Goenka, got a call when Shourie was with him. It was the chief minister of Maharashtra. He wanted to speak to Goenka. “Tell him I am there but I will not speak to him,” Goenka instructed Shourie to tell Antulay. The phone was put down gently as Antulay rang off.
When the story appeared that the chief minister of Maharashtra was collecting money for Indira Gandhi by tweaking a government policy (the word bribe was not mentioned anywhere), a storm rocked Parliament. Antulay did not resign, though Indira Gandhi’s managers — former President of India R Venkatraman, for one — said she “did not know”. The Indian Express then ran a report saying that was impossible: When she was a member of a trust, how could she not know where the contributions were coming from? Shourie unearthed a press release issued by the Maharashtra government’s publicity division, which was accompanied by a picture of Indira Gandhi signing the papers to set up an Indira Gandhi Pratibha Pratishthan. The headline of that story was: “You are a liar, Mr Venkatraman”. That was as defamatory as it could get but no suits were filed that day – or any other day.
Indira Gandhi would not let Antulay go. Firebrand Socialist leader Mrinal Gore filed a case in court seeking the governor’s intervention in removing the chief minister. But there was a legal anomaly here. The governor could exert his mind independently and take action —but in everything he did he was bound by the advice of the Cabinet.
Finally Antulay had to go. “Whenever I met him at airports or other places, he would always talk to me politely and was most pleasant,” said Shourie about a man who stayed pretty much in oblivion until he returned as minister for minority affairs in the Manmohan Singh Cabinet when the Supreme Court exonerated him of wrongdoing.
(This report is based on a conversation with Arun Shourie, former editor of The Indian Express)